“This is the moment they said would never happen,” Marco Rubio declared after the Iowa results were announced. “For months they told us we had no chance. Because we offered too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance.”
This wasn’t just rhetoric. If Ted Cruz does righteous indignation better than anyone on the Right, Marco Rubio probably does optimism better than any of his rivals. In fairness, Rubio has sometimes had to shift his message in order to match the times. The best politicians (think Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) can oscillate between optimism and anger, but almost every politician has a favored mode. In this regard, nobody has the potential to inspire and uplift more than Rubio, and his Iowa speech showed that. The speech also showed Rubio is a student of history who has studied politics as well. In one fell swoop, he channeled Barack Obama (who once upon a time delivered a similar “They said we couldn’t do it!” speech) and Bill Clinton (who once upon a time, despite losing an early primary, declared himself the “comeback kid .")
Republicans shouldn’t see this as a negative. Political strategy is philosophically neutral, and Marco Rubio is merely tapping into some of the same themes that past winners have sounded.
And — this is my main point — let’s be honest; in a sane world, Marco Rubio would be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. And he still might be. But he has a huge target on his back. Nobody, including competitors with no chance of winning, is going to allow Rubio to waltz to the nomination. Obviously, the stakes are high as we head into New Hampshire.
Rubio is like a football team who doesn’t control his own destiny. He needs help from other candidates along the way in order for him to prevail. So far, though, his team seems to be very good at doing whatever they can to help facilitate his success.
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have mocked the fact that Rubio seemed to parlay a third-place finish into a “win,” but this doesn’t just happen. His team assiduously established these expectations. In politics, if you meet or exceed expectations that is tantamount to “winning”—which is yet another reason why Donald Trump would be in yuge trouble should he blow the large lead he has built up in the Granite State.
What does Rubio need to do? Again, the good news is he doesn’t have to win New Hampshire—in fact, he probably won’t. What he must do, however, is win the so-called “establishment” lane there so that, at some point, he emerges as the alternative candidate who has the best shot of actually beating Hillary Clinton in November.
For months now, there has been a battle to get folks to coalesce around one “establishment” candidate — and I use the term loosely here, because I think Rubio is a conservative who, not long ago, was a tea party insurgent. In the wake of his strong Iowa showing, Rubio has the momentum to parlay his success into a strong New Hampshire showing, and finally become the standard bearer of the governing wing of the GOP. The only thing that would blow it is if Chris Christie or John Kasich or Jeb Bush were to finish ahead of him in New Hampshire. That would simply muddy the waters and reset the clock. We would be back to square one.
The bottom line is this: Marco Rubio might be the most talented politician in a generation. He has the potential to not only govern as a conservative, but to eloquently inspire people who don’t yet know they are conservative to join the GOP.
In a 21st century America that is becoming more ethnically diverse, urban, and highly educated, Rubio is easily the best-positioned Republican to transcend the preaching to the choir, and “sell” conservatism to a wider audience of Americans.
Like Rubio, I believe that conservatism is the best philosophy for anyone who cares about human flourishing. Conservative ideas will bring more joy, peace, and prosperity to all Americans than any other philosophy, and that includes Trump’s brand of xenophobic populism and Hillary Clinton’s brand of command-and-control liberalism.
To put it in words we’re all familiar with, he could be the one we’ve been waiting for on the Right. But before he can become a transformational political leader, he has to win the nomination. And before he can do that, he has to have a good showing in New Hampshire.
For now, the key for the candidate with the infamous “Cuban heel” boots can be summed up in just two words: Stayin’ alive.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is author of “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots).” Related: See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.